I am honored today to have as my guests the members of the American Journal of French Studies (AJFS) team.
A difficult language
Learning the French language demands a lot of motivation. Here, in Louisiana, thousands of students, largely because of their French heritage, immerse themselves in French culture through French immersion programs. That’s only one of the good reasons to start learning French. The parents play a crucial role at the beginning of this academic journey, and who does not listen to his parents? It came to our attention, though, that the difficulties inherent in the French language (grammar, vocabulary, syntax) make the students more prone to abandon or give up, sometimes switching to what they consider a more employable or easier language: Spanish. French is hard, and French people will not deny that. Even in acclaimed newspapers such as Les Echos, or Valeurs Actuelles, numerous mistakes can be spotted every week. Learning French is also difficult to justify because of the very few employment opportunities which are available in North America: there is only one Québec, and the dream of one day having students study French to improve their employment opportunities can more easily be realized through the enactment of laws making French one of the official languages in the targeted areas.
Another way to improve employment opportunities would be to go beyond academic partnerships between universities and schools, and promote alliances between higher education institutions and French businesses. Who has ever seen on one’s campus employers such as LVMH, Société Générale, BNP Paribas, Véolia, Total, Transdev, Saint Gobain, Sodexo, Alstom, EDF, PSA, Accor, Dassault Systèmes, Pernod Ricard, Ubisoft, Capgemini? Not us, not you.
Another problem with the French language is the ability to practice one’s oral and written skills. French conversation groups exist on Facebook and in real life but there is no free French government sponsored group. French classes at the Alliances Françaises are quite expensive, and it is through the internet that people find ways to practice a foreign language.
There is a need for French companies to better communicate their employment opportunities and to expand their presence throughout the United States across campuses. When managing directors in these aforementioned companies, who are often French, need to talk to their regional directors or their sales people, American employees able to speak French would definitely help avoid any miscommunication, and make business leaders more comfortable when they need to make business decisions. It is not easy to explain things in English to a Frenchman who lives in France, especially if the situation requires lot of jargon and complex details. Furthermore, cultural barriers fall when two people are able to speak French, and many specific details which would be left out in an English conversation would never be ignored when a Frenchman is spoken to in French. In other words, French in America needs more involvement from French businesses. If every French business in America mentions in their job offers that speaking French is either recommended or required, and communicates such demands to the Career Center of every university in the state where they operate, there is little doubt that French programs would be enhanced. If the French government is really willing to improve the status of the French language in the United States, they need to give more to American students. Creating a “national talent program,” which would give the opportunity to not just a few, but thousands of American, to do a 3-month internship in France, would strengthen not only the language itself, but also the economic ties between the two countries. Business relationships are easier when people have been exposed in a significant way to French culture. Time is money. If French businesses and the French government are able to show that speaking French can help to make a few extra bucks or even a good salary, we will see lots of people waiting in line to study in French classes.
What can the Francophone world offer to American students?
First, being a team player. Why don’t we see more initiatives involving not just France, but also other francophone countries? There is a need to create a G6 of the Francophonie, in which decisions will be easier to make and to implement, with a significant budget: Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, Monaco and Switzerland need to collaborate more when one of them intends to organize cultural events or academic exchanges, and develop business relationships. Who would say no to a Master or a Bachelor that brings you access to 6 different countries? Which business would say no to an agreement which would allow them immediate access to the markets of 6 countries, providing that it meets a required quota of French-speaking employees? Such an alliance would easily convince stellar students to choose a francophone way of life during their academic experience, and to bring a taste and a love for Francophone culture back to the U.S.
Secondly, francophone culture should be heavily promoted: Americans are very fond of French arts, castles, historic sites, food and wines, but also French cities such as Bordeaux, Paris, Lyon or even the French Riviera. French brands are also displayed in numerous online videos and praised by younger generations. In a recent TV Netflix show, Outer Banks, the characters even speak French for a few seconds. Not Spanish, not Chinese, but French. This also shows where French officials should invest their money when it comes to promoting French culture: on the Internet. Our smartphones give us access to numerous applications, which enable us to learn and interact in a new language (HelloTalk, Duolinguo, Babbel). Websites, podcasts, streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Disney+, Apple TV, Twitch, are go-to platforms where Americans should be able to easily find French content.
Once, in Poitiers, our team met a young French couple. They were both working at the local plant. They had never traveled outside of the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine but they were able to speak perfect English! How was that possible? They responded that they loved to spend hours every day after dinner watching American TV-shows on Netflix. Their English was near-fluent, even though they had never visited a single English-speaking country, and never got a degree beyond high school. They became very good at English by sitting for hours on their couch! Think about it: today, French people are keen on watching American TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Hollywood, Stranger Things, House of Cards and Black Mirror – but why? Because they represent the best of the many TV shows offered in English!
France has always largely subsidized the movie industry. It is now time to spur on a new generation of film-makers, whose movies will be watched on Netflix and other online platforms. Such initiatives should encapsulate cultures of the G6 countries. There are countless things to explore in the Belgian, Canadian, Luxembourgish, Monacan and Swiss cultures. Lots of students at LSU shared with us that they started learning French after watching movies in French featuring classical actors and actresses such as Audrey Hepburn, or Alain Delon, or listening to songs by Jacques Brel. Kid and teenage-friendly movies and music should be encouraged and promoted.
Thirdly, artificial intelligence should not be ignored: its applications encompass a wide range of industries, and the language learning industry would benefit a great deal from public and private investments directed at improving the interactions between a machine and a learner. For instance, it is realistic to expect that one day, a child will learn a language by talking and texting to a software program, which will impersonate a character, and will not only converse with the child, but also correct his or her mistakes in real time. Artificial intelligence companies such as Deep Mind, and its parent company Alphabet, have made tremendous progress in the machine learning process and their work should inspire higher education institutions as well as governments eager to help people learn new languages. If such technology would be accessible through Virtual Reality, there is no doubt that lots of students would enjoy talking or writing for hours to a safe friend who would guide them progressively from a beginner level to a fluent level in French.
The American Journal of French Studies
Where does the American Journal of French Studies stand? Our mission is first to promote the French language in the United States through excellence in written French. We believe that the greatest French writers such as Balzac, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Dumas, Laclos, Flaubert, Maupassant, Stendhal, Verne, Zola, or even Delpit should be read and studied to inspire generations of Americans to write their own poems and novels in French. This mission relies on the willingness of students to compose in literary French. We indeed believe that in order to capture the essence of the French language in all of its nuances – to master it, and feel comfortable with it – there is a path to follow. It is the same one that French elites have taken: combining the reading of classical texts with the watching of entertaining movies. Students need not only to frequently watch new francophone TV shows, but also to read classic French books, master them, and use the newly acquired vocabulary and grammar tools to become a voice in the Francophone world. Being able to express oneself in an elaborate and nuanced manner is the best way to be listened to and read by leaders and potential employers.
Our audience is wide: high school, undergraduate and graduate students, adults and professors of French studies; all play an integral part in the success of our Academic Journal. Students are invited to submit their poems, shorts novels and academic papers, and professors are invited to discuss their research. We build new bridges every day between the academic world and French learners.
Furthermore, we do believe that videos and arts should also be used in the learning process. That’s why we also publish exclusive interviews of professors of French Studies for our members on a wide variety of topics: from slavery in Louisiana to hip-hop culture in the French suburbs.
Our academic journal is unique because it offers young students a platform to be published. Usually reserved for PhD students, professors and scholars, most Academic Journals – perhaps all – do not accept submissions from students whose ages range from 10 to 20 years old. It is an unfortunate situation as many hidden French gems can be found within this group of students. Our academic journal also offers prize money every year for the winners of our grand concours de litérature, and we actively use social media to connect the general public with this heterogenous group of American students, scholars and French speakers. Our desire in the long term is to be a new type of Academic Journal, one which acts as a merger of Scribd, Youtube, HelloTalk, and Netflix. We aim to be a hub where learners have access to research papers that explain the most obscure topics of French literature, as well as novels and poems, interviews of francophone leaders, and exchange ideas in French through dedicated forums.
We hope that our enterprise will inspire French enthusiasts to join us and become members of the Journal. The money we receive through subscriptions is used to award monetary prizes to students and cover the maintenance costs of the website. We aspire to operate in every state in the country and help every student to be introduced to the wonderful francophone culture!